Eating in Japan: Adventures of a foodie

Jan Wong's account of the interesting sights and delicacies while on a Japanese food tour

Ben Shulman

Ben Shulman

Getty Images

Getty Images

Sweat beads my brow. My left hand grips a razor-sharp cleaver. My right hand curls, claw-like, around a flattened slab of dough. I’m at a Tokyo cooking school with my sons — Sam, 17, and Ben, 20 — making soba, the dense, nutty buckwheat noodles Japanese so love to eat.

“It takes three years to learn how to mix the dough, three months to learn how to roll it out and three days to learn how to cut it,” says Tsuneo Kamiya in accented English, his chopping hand blurring as the pasta falls in a silken heap, fine as angel hair. The master soba maker tosses the noodles into boiling water and then, less than a minute later, into ice water. Using chopsticks, he twirls each portion onto inverted woven-bamboo plates to drain. At lunch, we eat the chilled soba we’ve spent (only) two hours slaving over, dipping each mouthful in a bath of light soy sauce, bonito flakes, minced scallions and the sweet Japanese rice wine known as mirin.

Soba is an ascetic experience; unfortunately, a bit too ascetic. Without any meat or vegetables, we’re still hungry after several helpings. Mysteriously, the batch I made languishes uncooked in the kitchen. When I mention that, Kamiya-san bows slightly. With a pained smile, he returns a few minutes later with my handiwork, and it’s obvious why it didn’t, um, make the cut. My soba is irregular, defective, imperfect — in short, a culinary disgrace in a culture where appearance and esthetics are paramount. My kids mock my soba even as they slurp down every last bit, in proper Japanese style.

We’re on a private food-lover’s tour of Japan. The boys and I adore cooking — Chinese, French, Italian and classic American barbecue. But Japan’s exacting techniques have eluded us. So on this trip we will sample classics like sukiyaki, attend two cooking classes, browse pottery and kitchen-supply stores and visit fish and produce markets. We’re a small group, just my boys, myself, my sister and her two university-age children. For the next two weeks, our Japanese interpreter-guide, Kay Morisada, an athletic young woman with a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language from Northern Arizona University, will lead us across central Japan by bus, subway, tram, ferry, funicular and bullet train. We’ll visit Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Himeji, Takayama and Koyasan, staying in two-and three-star Western-style hotels, a Buddhist monastery with paper-thin walls and a ryokan, a traditional-style Japanese inn.

Famous fish market
On our first morning in Tokyo, we rise at 4:15 a.m. to take the subway a few stops to Tsukiji, the biggest wholesale fish market in the world. Before we left Canada, we’d all watched The Cove, the Oscar-winning documentary about Japan’s dolphin kill. The film, which portrays the local fishermen as thugs who stab their prey to death, was heavily protested here. And, for a while, so were foreign tourists at Tsukiji. Camera-toting foreigners and dead fish had apparently become a sensitive issue, although the ostensible reason was that tourists kept poking the wares, a serious faux pas.

The vast market, which appears to be the size of 30 soccer fields, has only recently reopened to visitors. We don’t feel particularly welcome. As we negotiate the narrow aisles, unsmiling workers zip past in motorized carts, nearly mowing us down.

The market initially seems overwhelming and chaotic, but in fact it’s highly organized, clean and without any fishy smell — a telltale sign of decomposition. It has two distinct sections, the vast fish market itself and, against the incongruous backdrop of Tokyo’s modernistic skyscrapers, a dense pedestrian bazaar of traditional sushi bars and shops selling knives, restaurant supplies, shiitake mushrooms, edible flowers, daikon radishes, herbs, jewel-like fruit and dried and fresh seaweed.

The fish market proper has outdoor docking stations, a hangar-like building for the tuna auctions and about 900 indoor stalls where fishmongers fillet and carve up the fish, sometimes with knives as long as swords. We squeeze past bathtub-sized buckets of swimming octopi and grouper, mounds of pale-grey shrimp and small bamboo boxes of black caviar and ochre-yellow sea-urchin roe. Vendors feed glistening blocks of ice into growling, shuddering machines that regurgitate avalanches of silver shavings.

Only a handful of bleary-eyed tourists have made the pre-dawn trek to Tsukiji. Supposedly, there is a daily quota of 140 spots for visitors inside the famous tuna auction itself. On this day, however, no one seems to be allowed inside except the licensed bidders. But, from under a half-open garage door, we catch a satisfying glimpse of the multi-million-dollar ritual.

Like an arsenal of grey torpedoes, frozen whole Australian tuna lie in precise rows on the concrete floor. Each fish weighs about 200 kilos and can cost upward of $100,000. Before the bidding starts, the buyers mill around, crouching to examine the small cut near each tail. The more marbled its red flesh, the costlier the fish. Just before 5:30 a.m., the bidding starts. The bidders, all men, are wholesalers who then sell their wins to chefs, restaurateurs and large retailers. They press toward the auctioneer, waving their arms and shouting. Ben takes pictures until a uniformed guard shoos us away.

We’re starving by 7 a.m., as the sun rises over Tokyo. At Daiwa, a 15-seat sushi bar that has been in business for 50 years, we sit side by side with barely any elbow room, while a waiting line grows outside the door. Dazed and jet-lagged, we taste the freshest sushi of our lives, ruby-red slabs of fat tuna and ivory-pink yellowtail atop nuggets of sweetened, vinegared rice, and sigh with pleasure.

Poisonous pufferfish
In Osaka’s famed Dotonbori quarter, a bustling 10-block entertainment district of restaurants, shops and pachinko-gambling parlours, we try a tasting menu of fugu, the notorious blowfish or pufferfish. Fugu requires expert knife skills; if nicked, its liver and ovaries release a lethal poison. The boys are game, mainly because they remember an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer orders fugu when the head chef is on a break. An apprentice slices up the sushi and Homer, predictably, eats the poisonous part. Ben recites, “Luckily, directions to the nearest hospital are printed on the back of the menu.”

Although Osaka coined the Japanese phrase “eating oneself into bankruptcy,” our 10-course sampler costs just $35 a person. The fugu comes raw, deep-fried, barbecued, steamed, seared on a hot stone and boiled. Thankfully, no one’s tongue tingles — the first symptom preceding fugu death by paralysis. One creamy raw morsel of fugu tastes slightly weird. In Japanese, it literally means “white children.” (I can read any Japanese that uses Chinese characters.)

“Fugu milt,” Kay translates.

Say what?

“Sperm sac,” she says helpfully.

The boys have trouble swallowing that. I’m just relieved no one dies.

Other meals are less challenging: thin ramen noodles in broth; a pub lunch of endless kushi katsu, deep-fried skewers of asparagus, beef and scallops washed down with excellent Japanese beer; tempura of shrimp and vegetables; an all-crab banquet in which the chefs expertly slice the shells so all we have to do is scoop out the flesh.

Geisha Capital
I spend my 58th birthday in Kyoto, the city made famous in the Hollywood movie Memoirs of a Geisha. In the evening, it’s still possible to glimpse an apprentice as young as 15 in elaborate white makeup and a brocade kimono, clacking by in wooden sandals. At dinner, the closest we will come to kimonos is those worn by our two servers at Fujiya (fuji means wisteria). We have splurged on kaiseki, a nine-course dinner of Japanese haute cuisine, at $160 a person. We leave our street shoes at the front entrance and use the restaurant-supplied wooden sandals. We remove these in turn at the sliding paper doors to our private tatami room.

We sit around a long black table on the pale rice-straw mats that give the tatami room its name. Thankfully, we do not have to do that painful cross-legged thing, because a cavity has been dug out in the floor. The set meal starts with an appetizer of sesame cream with sliced winter melon and a poached white fig garnished with Chinese wolfberry. Other courses include a consommé of hamo served in a black-and-silver lacquered bowl; a skewered whole salt-roasted fish; and sliced rare duck breast with roasted, peeled baby tomatoes and herbed vinegar. One of our servers, an elegant woman in her 40s who wears her hair in a French twist, gracefully bends almost to her knees to serve each dish, always formally with both hands. I imagine she must have thighs of steel. Somehow, she never steps on the hem of her celadon-green kimono or dips her flowing sleeves in the sauce.

Bunking with monks
In rural Takayama, famed for its sake breweries, we stay at a traditional inn. We sleep on futons and soak naked in gender-segregated baths. Dinner includes sticky yam, which is an acquired taste, and the famed local beef, cooked on a small tabletop barbecue. At Rengejo-in, a Buddhist temple atop a mountain shrine in Koyasan, the monks rouse us at 6 a.m., in English and Japanese, using a public-address system, for morning meditation. Afterward, we sit cross-legged in silence on tatami mats for breakfast: rice, miso soup and pickled turnip dyed magenta and fluorescent yellow. It’s the original detox spa — you pay a lot and get almost nothing to eat.

Home cooking
The highlight of our trip is an evening in Mariko Matsuoka’s kitchen. A secretary in Kyoto by day, she offers cooking lessons in English at her home, by night. Her kitchen, which opens directly onto her dining-living room, has a single L-shaped counter, a cooktop, no oven, a microwave, a rice cooker and a toaster oven, which she uses not to make toast but to broil unagi, the delicious marinated eel served over steamed rice. I’m jealous of her sink, a huge, single stainless-steel trough nearly a metre wide. It’s designed to accommodate the big bamboo tub every household uses to mix sushi rice. Her fridge, slightly smaller than the average Canadian one, has three large drawers for vegetables and fruit and two small freezer drawers, plus an upper cold section subdivided for fresh fish and meat.

I notice a trap door in the middle of the kitchen’s hardwood floor. “That’s where I keep my husband,” Mariko says in English, smiling sweetly. Indulging our curiosity, she opens the trap door — it’s an ingenious one-foot-deep storage spot for big pots. Now, why don’t we have something like that?

Mariko dons an apron over her ruffled navy blouse and seersucker pants. Under her guidance, we poach Japanese eggplant in a stock we’ve made from bonito flakes and dried kelp. We make a soup of fresh, tiny clams and miso paste. We deep-fry marinated chicken breasts. We mix vinegar, sugar and salt and fold it into freshly made, still-warm rice to make perfectly moist sushi rice. Later, we sit down at her dining-room table and feast on the results, squeezing fresh lime juice over the crunchy fried chicken. Sated, we sip chilled peach herbal tea and nibble on green-tea cookies while she tells us how she learned to cook from her mother and grandmother.

Final food fix
On our last day, for research purposes only, we duck into a McDonald’s to try the teriyaki burger. It tastes awful, like a breakfast patty brushed with teriyaki sauce. Happily, at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, we have time for a final foodie fix. Sushi Kyotatsu, on the third floor of Terminal 1, offers wild-caught bluefin medium-fatty tuna. Could it be from the torpedoes we saw two weeks earlier? It’s an extravagant $7 a morsel, so we order one piece each. It’s melt-in-the-mouth good, the perfect end to a perfect trip.

Know before you go:

1. Currency
Credit cards are rarely accepted in Japan. ATMs are available, but some shut down after hours and on holidays. Convert your money before you depart. Check the exchange rate, at press time it was 82 yen to the dollar. There is no tipping.

2. Etiquette
Everyone knows about the importance of bowing, but foreigners often forget that the Japanese cringe if you raise your voice in public (or private). Another surprise: Never blow your nose in public, a habit the Japanese consider disgusting.

Getting around
Public transportation is efficient, inexpensive and, at rush hour, no more crowded than Toronto’s subway lines.

3. Lighting up
Smoking is widespread but prohibited in most public places, including some major streets in Tokyo.

Jan took the Taste of Japan tour. It costs about $4,340 per person, double occupancy. Intrepid, an Australia-based company, runs this tour in spring and fall, but will operate at other times for at least eight people. The price includes 13 breakfasts, two lunches and seven dinners, cooking lessons, transportation, private guide, all hotels and some admissions. 1-866-360-1151,

Edo Tokyo Soba School A one-day soba class, including lunch, costs $38. Classes run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday to Monday. 3-24-8 Higashi-Tateishi, Katsushika-ku Tokyo, 03-3694-1241,

Daiwa-Sushi Restaurant Sushi sets cost around $42. Open 5:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Rokugoukan, Tsukiji Shijo, Chuo-Oroshiuri-Shijo, 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Tokyo, 03-3547-6807,

Zuboraya Osaka restaurant specializing in set pufferfish tasting menus starting from $63. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Dotonbori 1-6-10, Chuo-ku, Osaka, 06-6211- 0181,

Fujiya Restaurant has been in business for about 175 years and serves Kyoto-style kaiseki cuisine. Eleven-course haute-cuisine dinner costs around $180 per person. Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Nishi, Hitosuji, Sanjo, Kiya, Kyoto, 604-0961, 075-252-1811,

Rengejo-in Temple Doubles start from $115 per person, including vegetarian breakfast and dinner. Singles: $125. Shukubo, or temple lodgings, have tatami-mat rooms, futons, fusuma-paper sliding doors, shared toilets and traditional communal (but gender-separated) baths. Guests are encouraged to attend early-morning chanting and evening meditation. 700 Koyasan, Koya, Ito, Wakayama, 0736-56- 2233,

Mariko’s Kitchen in Kyoto. Classes for a maximum of four, every Tuesday and Thursday. Reserve at least two days in advance. Check out her blog (in English). 090-5139-6534, A Broad Abroad – the tales from one woman who dropped everything to travel around the world.

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